Agency in the 21st century: the emperor's new clothes

Friday, November 1, 2013
First author:
Hilberink S.
Belonging through Performance

Expertise Center Innovations in Care, Rotterdam University, Rotterdam, Netherlands

All authors:

Sander R. Hilberink, Mieke Cardol

Empowerment & Environment


Ideas about people with disabilities have evolved dramatically since the 1950s. From individuals 'suffering from illness', whilst today's credo stresses social inclusion, participation and agency. However, the definition of agency varies among stakeholders. The present paper explores changing and competing constructions of agency.


We conducted a quick scan of the international literature and national policy reports. Used keywords included 'agency', 'mastery', and 'empowerment' to cover related constructs. Definitions were critically examined regarding their references to having control over one's life, based on choice options between acceptable alternatives facilitating meaningful choices.


Nowadays, agency often suffers from a 'more is better' paradigm. Agency often refers to a type of citizenship that fits general expectations, lacking concepts such as diversity and variety. In policies, agency is considered as an outcome, which unilaterally places greater emphasis on one's own responsibility, while limiting the needed support systems to enable that very responsibility. This makes citizens vulnerable to the loss of agency over their lives.


Agency seems to be annexed by policymakers, being stripped from actual lived experiences and the rights for self-determination; agency has been transformed from the endeavour for ownership of one's life into a verdict to enforce active citizenship without offering the required support. It appears that agency is now reintroduced as the 'emperor's new clothes'.